The economic value of Britain’s railways was a recurring theme at Infrarail 2018.
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), opened this year’s show by suggesting that the value of the rail industry to the UK economy has been underplayed for several years.
A study commissioned by RIA and conducted by Oxford Economics found that in 2016 the industry supported around 600,000 jobs and was worth £36 billion – 2.3 per cent of the UK’s GDP – to the country’s economy. The figure dwarfs the £10.4 billion statistic currently used by the government to illustrate the value of the railway.
The 12th instalment of Infrarail, which was again held at ExCeL in London Docklands, took place during an interesting period for the industry. Network Rail’s chief engineer, Jon Shaw, who opened this year’s event, said he remembered the first-ever Infrarail exhibition, which was held during the British Rail era at the emergence of privatisation.
Infrarail 2018 welcomed more than 200 exhibitors from 16 different countries. The variety of products and services on show ranged from the suppliers of bolts and cables to engineering consultants and training providers.
RSSB had a stand at the exhibition’s entrance to promote the Railway Industry Supplier Qualification Scheme (RISQS), which from 1 May is no longer being run as a concession.
Major projects, including HS2 and Crossrail, had a presence, as did Rail Baltica, the body delivering a new 870 km railway to link Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Europe’s standard-gauge network.
Delivering his keynote speech on the opening day, transport secretary Chris Grayling spoke about harnessing technology to create a more efficient and reliable railway. He also reaffirmed about his support for bi-mode trains and his desire to see the UK’s first hydrogen train out on the network.
While significant investment has been promised for CP6, the industry still seeks assurances. Darren Caplan said RIA’s role would be to maintain “political heat” around major projects, such as Crossrail 2, and encourage the government to provide a clear schedule of upcoming enhancement schemes.
Crossrail is a good illustration of the social and economic importance of major railway projects.
Chief engineer Chris Binns began his progress update presentation by stressing the project’s £42 billion estimated economic benefit – another figure that could well end up being higher.
On 20 May, the project will celebrate another milestone.
At the end of May, Class 345 units will begin operating services on the western section of the route. With 11 new trains currently operating between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, it leaves just the central tunnelled section left to complete.
Chris Binns said Crossrail engineers were still working on the tricky interface between the three different signalling systems, which will be needed in May 2019 when the three sections are joined up, providing a through service from Paddington to Shenfield.
Chris said he believed that since Crossrail was launched in 2009, the project has created an environment for its supply chain to innovate and develop industry best practice.
“We’ve done as much as we possibly can to give the contractors a platform… and they’ve really responded,”said Chris.
The exhibition also highlighted some of the more sobering home truths the industry is having to face.
Some issues are familiar. Many would love to see a more sustainable model of investment and an end to the boom/bust patterns of the past.
Some issues are still unclear. Both Darren Caplan and Balfour Beatty Rail managing director Mark Bullock, who gave the keynote talk on day two, raised concerns about Brexit.
While Darren felt it could also bring opportunities for the industry, Mark was concerned about the impact it could have on the workforce.
“My fear is that if we see a dip in workload in the next few years, when we need those people, they may not be there, which I think is tragic,” said Mark. “The more certainty the supply chain has… the better it is able to plan its resources and innovate accordingly.”
The topic of diversity was addressed by Adeline Ginn, chair of Women in Rail, in Infrarail’s Knowledge Hub. Research conducted and collated by Women in Rail suggests that almost 80 per cent of women in the rail industry are in non-managerial roles. At the current rate, it would take 70 years for the industry to achieve a true gender balance.
In September, Women in Rail will launch a new mentoring scheme to support the progression of young women in the industry.
Adeline’s talk explained why diversity is good for business. Among the various reasons given was the need for a diverse workforce to understand its equally diverse customer base.
There’s also evidence to suggest that diverse teams can be more productive, said Adeline, and that companies are finding more and more candidates are looking at an employer’s record on diversity when applying for a job.
Innovation across the supply chain is needed to achieve CP6 targets around safety and reliability. There was plenty of evidence on show during the week that new products and solutions are being developed to solve long-standing challenges.
For event organisers Mack Brooks Exhibitions, attention now turns to Railtex 2019, which will be held between 14-16 June in Birmingham, as we consider what challenges and opportunities the next 12 months will have in store.